From Wakanda To America: Agreement, Disagreement And The Complexity Of Social Judgments

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“…superhero-genre stories are not cultural directives to be imitated, but instead tools for thinking about society.” – Gavin Weston

Nowadays, it is hard not to be aware of the cultural phenomena that is Black Panther.  The film has garnered reactions from writers, journalists, professors and research analysts and has formed the basis of a semester-long assignment for an undergraduate foreign policy course entitled The Challenge of Global Poverty: Why It Matters and What We Can Do About It. Why all of this commotion about a superhero movie? I argue that a particular analysis of the film—based on Social Domain Theory (SDT)—suggests that Wakanda is not that different from America. 

SDT: A Brief Overview

Elliot Turiel contends that beginning in early childhood, people attempt to understand and evaluate social interactions. These social interactions generally correspond to distinct domains of judgment, each with its own concepts: moral (harm, justice and rights), social-conventional (laws, rules and norms), and personal (autonomy, personal jurisdiction and preferences).  As we observe and participate in social interactions that vary in complexity (situations, where concepts from multiple domains are relevant or multiple concepts from the same domain, are relevant), how we coordinate or balance these concepts influences how we organize, understand and evaluate our world. Given the diversity of social interactions and judgments in everyday life, Turiel and colleagues generally predict—either more directly or indirectly—that as people’s attempts to live together will be characterized by areas of agreement and disagreement. This applies to social life on any level of group analysis (families, social groups, cultures, or societies). 

Agreement and Disagreement in Wakanda

What constitutes an agreement will be construed loosely, encompassing situations where the majority of people appear to agree. It may be best to view the examples as illustrative of general rather than complete agreement. Disagreements are also construed loosely, including situations where large groups of people are multiple sides of an issue as well as situations primarily involving individuals. 

Regarding domestic affairs, most of the tribes in Black Panther agreed on the government and leadership structure foundational to Wakandan culture and civilization. A key feature of this structure is the ceremonial battle for the throne, where each tribe can submit a challenger. In terms of international affairs, there was initial consensus regarding Wakanda’s role in foreign affairs, mainly that Wakanda should not (1) trade with or accept aid from other countries and (2) get involved in their affairs. As the film progresses, consensus wanes as more people question these policies. 

Disagreement amongst Wakandans can be found at the group and individual level. For the former, a central theme in the film was the debate regarding Wakanda’s place in the world. One side argued that Wakanda should preserve its isolationist tradition and the other advocated for the adoption of an interventionist position. These differing perspectives reached their climax towards the end of the film, which featured a civil war between those loyal to T’Challa and those loyal to Killmonger.

At an individual-level Okoye, the leader of the Dora Milaje, often clashed with others. Okoye’s reaction differed from that of Zuri’s when Killmonger was about to defeat T’Challa during the ceremonial battle. Although visibly upset, Okoye did not intervene, presumably because doing so would break tradition. In contrast, Zuri intervened to save T’Challa’s life. Okoye also clashed with the spy Nakia and her husband W’Kabi regarding what’s best for Wakanda. These disagreements suggest that although Wakandans wanted what’s best for Wakanda, their understandings of what “best” means in a given situation can differ. 

Agreement and Disagreement in America

Data on Americans’ socio-political attitudes comes from a 2018 PEW Research report. From oldest to youngest (age ranges in 2018 in parentheses), the data came from the following generations: Silents (73-90), Boomers (54-72), Gen-Xers (38-53), and Millennials (22-37). The results presented are descriptive (no statistical analyses were used to compared groups), therefore the issues discussed below are best viewed as potential areas of agreement and disagreement. 

General agreement was defined as either a difference between the largest and smallest proportions being less than 10 percent (i.e., less than two to five times the margin of error for ’17 samples) or proportions for at least three of the four generations being greater than 50 percent. Based on these criteria, there was some general agreement on a variety of issues. Most Americans in each generation indicated that they only trusted the government some of the time. 

In terms for foreign policy, the proportions who believed that the U.S. should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems at home and that it is best for the country’s future to be active in world affairs were similar across generations. Americans were generally in agreement regarding their views on whether economic inequality was a moderately big problem. In terms of gun policy, the proportion of Americans in each generation that believed that it is more important to protect ownership rights than to control those rights was similar. Lastly, similar proportions reported holding a mixture of different political views.

General disagreement across generations was defined as a difference between the largest and smallest proportions being greater than 10 percent. Silents tend to make up a considerably less of the adult population than the three later cohorts. Therefore, it is possible that some of these results are influenced by this potential “age effect”. Each disagreement discussed below includes millennials differing from at least one other generation. 

Compared to the other generations, more millennials believed that discrimination was a main barrier to Blacks’ progress and opposed expanding the wall along the America-Mexico border. Fewer millennials believed that being too open to people from around the world means risking national identity. Compared to Boomers and Silents, more Millennials approved of Obama’s first year in office, Obama’s health care law passed in 2010, and preferred a bigger government providing more services. Fewer Millennials approved of Trump’s first year, believed America should follow its national interest even if its allies strongly disagree, and believed there was no solid evidence of global warming. Compared to Silents, fewer millennials believed in the general fairness of the economic system. 

From Wakanda and America

If we accept that Wakanda and America consist of diverse individuals who (potentially) agree on some issues and disagree on others, then what does this mean for millennials? Since millennials are the most racially and ethnically diverse adult generation in American history according to the PEW report, I believe that the notion that agreements and disagreements are common in social life have important implications for today’s political climate. Although it is clear that over time America has changed demographically, we must also acknowledge—as suggested by Turiel and colleagues—that America is and has always been a country of individuals with diverse perspectives on a variety of issues. Depending on how individuals construe a situation, they may agree or disagree on the core issues and how to address them. 

Even a cursory look at the current cultural landscape reveals that America is becoming increasingly diverse and polarized. These trends—coupled with the expectation of areas of agreement and disagreement within and between groups (regardless of how the groups are defined)—present an important challenge for Millennials and Americans at large. Either we attempt to understand our differences in a way that accounts for our similarities or we continue to over-emphasize our differences to the point where the prospect of solving pressing problems together becomes increasingly unlikely. If you are interested in the former, then you may want to take a(nother) trip to Wakanda.


- Justin Martin is a  Professor of Psychology at Whitworth University -

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Modern Treatise.